Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: BYU vs. #22 Utah Preview

The site of the next Holy War between the Utah Utes and the BYU Cougars will be in Las Vegas. Photo Courtesy: Scofy's Social Club Facebook Page
The site of the next Holy War between the Utah Utes and the BYU Cougars will be in Las Vegas. Photo Courtesy: Scofy’s Social Club Facebook Page

By Jeff Cantrell

Game Info
BYU Cougars vs. #22 Utah Utes
Saturday – December 19 – 2:30 pm CT
Sam Boyd Stadium – Las Vegas, Nevada

Records Before the Game
BYU Cougars (9-3)
Utah Utes (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12)

How did BYU get here?
BYU opened the season with back to back wins over Nebraska and Boise State, which was ranked #20 at the time. Then they suffered their first lost 24-23 to then #10 UCLA. A week later they were crushed by Michigan in a 31-0 loss which dropped them to 2-2 for the season. After that the Cougars reeled off five straight victories, before falling in an upset loss to Missouri. The Cougars finished the season off with lopsided victories over Fresno and Utah State. The Cougars end the season 9-3, just outside the rankings, with no real signature wins to warrant higher recognition.

How did Utah get here?
The Utes started the season with a bang by taking down Michigan in the season opener. Utah then rattled off five more wins including a 62-20 beat down of the Oregon Ducks. Their first loss of the season came against USC, but was followed by wins over Oregon State and Washington. Then, the Utes hit a snag when Devontae Booker, Utah’s star RB, was loss for the season in a 37-30 double overtime loss to Arizona. The Utes lost again, 17-9, to UCLA the following week before closing the season out with a win against Colorado. Like BYU, #22 Utah ended the season at 9-3.

The Match Up
This should be an interesting matchup, because it comes between in state rivals with equal 9-3 records. The numbers would tend to favor the Utes in this one for several reasons. First, #22 Utah’s strength of schedule is rated as the 26th toughest, and they finished that schedule with three wins and two losses to teams ranked in the top 30. BYU on the other hand, is unranked, has strength of schedule of 68th, and has zero wins and two losses against teams in the top 30. However, defensively Utah has shown itself to be vulnerable through the air, which looks promising for the Cougars, who rank 107th in rushing offense, but 21st in passing offense. Without Booker to bolster its ground game, Utah will need to rely on its passing game, which again favors BYU which ranks 23rd in passing defense.

If BYU QB Tanner Mangum can get something going in this game, he’s certainly shown the ability to pick a defense apart through the air. Mangum has passed for 3062 yard and 21 TDs with seven interceptions. The Cougars have a bevy of targets for Mangum to throw to, with WR Mitch Matthews leading the way with 11 TD receptions and 729 yards. While eight Cougars have double digit receptions and nine have caught one or more TDs on the season. BYU also has RB Algernon Brown who averages 5.7 yards a carry and has rushed for 11 TDs on the season.

Utah’s Travis Wilson, is a talented dual-threat QB and is second on the team in rushing yards and rushing TDs, behind only the injured Booker. In the passing game, he has thrown for 2024 yards and 13 TDs with 10 picks. Wilson’s ratio of interceptions to touchdowns is reason for concern going into a game. He will need to be playing mistake free and at a high level in the passing game for the Utes to have the aerial threat they need to keep BYU from cheating players up to stop the run. In the running game, it falls on RB Joe Williams to bear the load for the Utes, but Williams has only had serious play time in two games, UCLA and Colorado, and has scored only one touchdown on the season.

Although Utah looks like it should be favored to win this game, BYU is healthier and matches up favorably against some of Utah’s weaknesses. So when looking at the game as a whole, factoring in the strength of schedule, injuries and the statistical matchup, the game looks like it will be an exciting and close.

Still questions remain… Can Utah find a way to win without its offensive leader, Devontae Booker? Or will turnovers and miscues again doom the Utes as they did against USC? Can BYU upset the higher ranked Utes and finally get a signature win over a ranked foe to cap off its season? Or will the Cougars let another close game slip away as they did in losses to UCLA and Missouri?

Prediction: Utah 28 – BYU 24